Building bridges in a secular age
How Catholic media today can dialogue with the world —van excerpt of a talk at Living City’s 50th anniversary panel
By Fr. Patrick Gilger, SJ
I would like to put my own spin on the question of how the media can facilitate dialogue in our polarized society by looking at it from two perspectives: as a Jesuit priest who works in Catholic media, and as a social theorist. I want to begin with a bit of history and theory, because we have to know our problem before we can begin to imagine responses.
My aim will be, first, to offer some historical and theoretical context, and, second, to offer three potential solutions, three ways that Catholic media might respond to this problem.
From the perspective of social theory, we begin by asking: how did we get here? How did this problem become a problem for us?
A saturated or a differentiated world?
Although it is too simple to frame it this way, we can begin to get a historical grasp on the problems of polarization by remembering where we have come from. It was once a case, we might say, that we lived in a world that was “saturated” with meaning. In this saturated world, we shared similar ideas and spiritualities; we worked doing similar things and shared similar family and religious structures.
And because we shared all these practices and ideas, we were fluent not just in the same spoken language, but in the same symbolic language as well. A crucifix and a stop sign, a religious habit and the national anthem — all these symbols constituted a symbolic language that we could use to order, negotiate and describe our world.
This saturated world was both empowering and, at the same time, constraining. It was empowering because sharing the same symbolic language let us know who we were and what our place in such a society might be. It was empowering because we collectively know what it means to be a potter or seamstress or priest — we know how to live these roles well, and we know what it means to push their boundaries. A young man might be born the son of a craftsman, for example, and be taught the family trade and grow old in the same town. Or a young woman might refuse to be married to the person her family chose, insisting instead that she be allowed to join a convent.
Of course, this saturated world never fully existed. Even more, we know that it was not just empowering but constraining. Not only were our imaginations limited, but many people in the U.S., African Americans and women most especially, were excluded from both leadership and the public sphere.
In a saturated world, we knew who we could become, what our roles were; and we knew how to live them out. This is obviously not our world today.
Ours is a world not of saturation, but of differentiation. And with differentiation come, again, both positive and negative things. New freedoms and possibilities emerge for each one of us; many are able to be their authentic selves in ways they were never allowed to be before. In a differentiated world people who had been constrained to private life, or to social roles they loathed, now can take on new roles in public. People can give gifts that they always possessed, but were not able to pass along to the community. A differentiated world is one filled with a plethora of new gifts.
But it is also one filled with new and enormous problems. As we become more different from one another, as new voices are heard and new roles created, we begin to forget how to speak the same symbolic language because we no longer share the same set of practices that teach us how to speak it. And lacking a common set of symbols means that we now struggle to communicate certain things, we misunderstand one another, or end up talking for hours to explain something that used to be communicated with a gesture.
And, even more deeply, in a differentiated world it becomes increasingly difficult to know who we are and what role we are supposed to play in society as individuals. Because we can be anything — an astronaut, a physicist, a barista, a teacher, a husband — it can feel increasingly difficult to commit to being some particular thing.
Of course, this binary is too simple; but it can spark our historical imagination. It can teach us something of how, when our context changes, our practices must change as well. This is exactly what Vatican II tried to do for the Catholic Church; it tried to help us understand how the practice of being the Church looks different in a new context. But this contextual demand is true not only of the Church. It is true of the media as well.
This begins to come clear when we recognize that what we refer to as media today really only exists within a differentiated world. In a saturated world, there is virtually no such thing as public media. Historically, in fact, we can see that newspapers and coffee houses and all the spaces and technologies that create the public space are part of what constitutes a differentiated world. And, again, this is in many ways a great gift.
Catholic media in a saturated world
For our purposes here, we might wonder what kind of role Catholic media has had in the American context. The role that American Catholic media has had is, in fact, unique. And this because the American context is quite different from that of Latin America or Europe or East Asia.
The American context is one that has been, in some ways, very comfortable with pluralism. But in other ways it has always excluded particular groups from being considered “American.” For a long time, in fact, it was Catholics whose patriotism was viewed with suspicion. Partly because of this suspicion, the Catholic Church in America constructed what we might call a “Catholic public sphere.” We built an entire set of parallel institutions — hospitals, schools, parishes, media enterprises — precisely because we were excluded from the dominant public sphere. It was this set of institutions that, for many years, gave American Catholics the kind of common experiences and shared symbols that empowered us Catholics to know who we were and to understand one another well.
In this context, Catholic media had a very clear role. Its task was to bridge two coherent things: a relatively stable “American” public sphere and a relatively stable “Catholic public sphere.” It was in the hope of bridging these that so much Catholic media began. This is what Fulton Sheen did in his wildly successful television shows. This is what Sacred Heart radio sought to do as well. And this is what the magazine I work for — America Magazine — strove for. In fact, we can get a sense of how important this bridge was by looking more closely at the name of the magazine. Why was “America” chosen as a name for a Catholic publication? Simply because Catholics were suspected of not being real Americans — and to bridge to the gap between the American public sphere and the Catholic, we needed to be seen as both American and Catholic. Hence: America.
The fact of the matter is that these efforts at bridge-building in a saturated world were, by and large, quite successful. We built that bridge well.
Catholic media in a differentiated world
But in the present secular age, in our differentiated world, we no longer have to build one bridge, but many. And we have to build them not just between two stable spheres, but between multiple, fragmented, and increasingly contradictory spheres. The bridges that Catholic media wants to build now must run in every direction, and this puts unique pressures on what Catholic media can be and what it can do.
One of these pressures comes simply from the amount of content that is present in people’s lives. It’s much more difficult to be heard, to grab people’s attention today. An example: in the five days that it takes us to print an issue of America Magazine there are 2.5 billion tweets sent. The sheer volume of communication is overwhelming. How are we supposed to build bridges between so many positions?
Another pressure our differentiated world puts on our efforts to build bridges comes in noticing the kind of audience to whom we are speaking. That is, media must either become more vague — more like Time or USA Today — in an attempt to speak to an ever-more-diverse public. Or media is forced to become more particular — more like Ars Technica, or Wired, or First Things — in an attempt to speak to a smaller, more coherent group.
What can we do in the face of these pressures? How can Catholic media attempt to live up to its vocation of being bridge-builders in our differentiated world? I wish I had a silver bullet answer to give you all, but I don’t. What I do have is three suggestions as to how we might begin to respond. The first deals with an external, outward focus, the second with an internal focus, and the third is a way we might bridge the inward and the outward.
First, then, the external. I suggest that our first focus is on excellence, beauty. This is Hans Urs von Balthasar’s point applied to media today. In Catholic media today — in our writing, in our video production, in our audio work — we must seek to persuade by telling a beautiful story and trusting that beauty, excellence, still has the power to persuade. We must depict beautifully the encounter with God in all its varied shapes today.
Secondly, Catholic media today must be more deeply rooted in our own faith, and in the communal practice of that faith, than perhaps ever before. This is precisely what Pope Paul VI called us to in Ecclesiam Suam, his great encyclical on dialogue with other religions and with the world. There Paul VI made the point that it is rootedness in our own traditions that allows us to reach out to those different from us generously and humbly, to see them as gifts rather than as threats. And this is what I think Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare, meant with her invitation of “becoming one with the other” through dialogue. We are able to do so precisely because we are rooted in our own traditions.
Third and lastly: how can we accomplish these two tasks at the same time? How can we tell not just any beautiful story, but those that emerge from deep rootedness in our particular spiritual traditions? How can our communities be rooted not in a way that puts up high barriers in order to exclude others, but precisely so that we strive for unity? This is the true bridge that we must build amidst all the fragmentation we face today: a bridge that begins from a particular place of rootedness and is built by beautiful depictions of encounters with a God who never stops seeking to encounter us.
This is anything but an easy task. Living up to it will put us in tension. But I think that we ought to take this tension as a sign not of failure, but of success. Even more: it is tension that is, in our age, a sign that we are balancing the effort to reach out to the world in beauty with the effort to be rooted in our own particular traditions. It is a sign that the Holy Spirit is living and active.
Building bridges in our time means that we must remain in this tension, make friends with it, reverence it when we feel it arise within our Church, within our ministries, and within ourselves.
Excerpted from a talk given at the Building Bridges colloquium,
which marked the 50th anniversary of Living City magazine
at Fordham University’s McNally Amphitheatre in October.
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